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What Does The General Election Tell Us About How To Engage Millennials In Future Politics?

12/06/2017 13:08 BST | Updated 12/06/2017 13:08 BST

As with the EU referendum, US Presidential elections and Scottish referendum, the generational divides between voters has once again proved to be a key talking point of the 2017 General Election. We don't yet know the demographic breakdown of voters, and won't yet for a few weeks. Estimates of the turnout of younger people in yesterday's General Election current ranging between 72% of 18-24 year olds (a stat cited by NUS President Malia Bouattia on Twitter, with the source as yet unknown) and 56% estimated turnout of under-35s (according to an "exit poll" conducted by NME/The Stream). Even accounting for this range, there would seem to be a clear increase since the 2015 general election.

The millennial generation - roughly those born from the early-1980s up until 2000 - now represent 1 in 4 UK adults and are set to overtake the baby boomers as the largest age cohort. With the oldest of the cohort aged around 36, the term "millennials" encompass a diverse group of people of all shapes and sizes and from a range of different backgrounds, but also share broad similarities - such as being more socially liberal and holding internationalist values, generally more educated than their parents' generation, and more comfortable with immigration. The differences in political behaviours amongst this age group has also been keenly discussed in recent years because the voter turnout of millennials has been declining faster than other generations, meaning young people's overall share of the vote has reduced.

So does the General Election mark a reversal of these trends? To an extent, yes. Certainly it has shown that low turnout amongst younger people is not a fait accompli. Even without hard figures on turnout it is clear that the political mood of millennials has changed. Some of the surprise results of the election, such as the win for Labour in Battersea, where Conservative Jane Ellison had a previous majority of almost 8000 votes, look set to be because of the younger vote (Battersea is the constituency with the highest proportion of 25-34 year olds, according to ONS figures).

Higher turnout is undoubtedly a result of the wake-up call that was the Brexit vote last year, which left many millennials (the majority of whom voted to Remain in the EU) angry, disappointed, but more importantly vocal and motivated to ensure their views were not "left behind" again.

However, even though this was an election ostensibly about Brexit, both the Conservative and Labour manifestos contained little information about their proposed approach to the EU negotiations. The Labour Party deliberately chose to play a different ball game. Their surge in support is likely to be as much due to their policies on public services and education targeted at younger voters and their propensity to support single issues and campaigns.

It clearly paid off for Labour votes, but was this focus at the expense of clear thinking and engagement on Brexit, another top priority for millennials? Millennials strongly backed a vote to Remain in the referendum last year and continue to support membership of the Single Market and the freedom of movement, with immigration a far lower concern than for other age groups. Corbyn's keenness to impress his respect of the will of the 52% who voted to Leave may be at the expense of the values and priorities of younger generations are put at the heart of the Brexit negotiations - in this sense there may be an internal paradox to the Labour vote. Hopefully the election result will mean that the Conservative government can no longer claim an unequivocal mandate for a hard Brexit, and open the floor for the more moderate Conservatives to discuss more nuanced approaches. But in a hung Parliament that will already lack decisiveness, it remains to be seen whether the Labour Party can turn their election successes into a strong and unified Parliamentary Opposition that thoroughly scrutinises the Brexit process.

In the meantime there is lots to learn from Labour's election tactics about how political parties can respond to the values, expectations and behaviours of millennials. It was clear even for those of us who did not support Corbyn, that his campaign capitalised on social exchanges and peer influence. This was also the election in which the media opinion mattered far less and where technology stepped up to the plate - for a generation who places much importance of tangible outcomes to see the value of voting than their elders, tactical voting and manifesto summary apps seem to have come into their own.

These lessons could help pave the way for a more successful Brexit. To restore faith in the process, the Government - or indeed any political party - should launch a detailed public consultation process before entering into firm Brexit negotiations. To account for the political behaviours of younger people, the process should be conducted online, for an extended period, and seek to encourage deliberative rather than binary decision making. Following this, a future referendum (or general election if necessary) that is based on a series of proposed options for Brexit should be opened up to 16 and 17 year olds.

In the longer term, if we envisage that younger generations will continue to be more engaged in politics, politicians will need to think about the changing rules of engagement beyond courting younger people to the polling booth. Just as the Scottish independence referendum saw a wave of younger, less traditional politicians not only take up seats but change the ways they interact with voters and with each other, so too might this election hint at a shift in norms and behaviours in Westminster. But on the other hand, the mood may swing the other way in the form of tribal populism, a certain harm to intergenerational consensus in the long run. Rather we need deliberative and engaging policies designed to increase political trust and civic engagement amongst millennials whilst thinking about the long-term common good. In short, this is the beginning not the end of the process.